Pascal’s Wager

A prudential argument is one that concerns itself with personal benefit and detriment in matters of belief in general and concerning Christianity in particular. People should believe certain things for their own self-benefit or self-preservation. Pascal believed a person reaps infinite benefit in betting life on God’s existence but experiences no loss if He does not in fact exist. However, a person suffers infinite defeat in not wagering on God’s existence, yet receives no real gain if God does not exist. Therefore, Pascal urged, put your faith in God. Like Pascal, Jesus makes similar arguments (Matt. 5:11-12; Luke 9:23-25).  He did not believe there was neutrality. If you believe in God, you’re choosing to not believe. If you choose not to choose, you’re choosing not to believe. There is no middle ground. Douglas Groothuis in his book Christian Apologetics: A Comprehensive Case for Biblical Faith responds to two common objections made to the wager: 1) we cannot be said to have faith if there is any tentativeness involved and 2) wagering faith is rejected because it is cultivated only to save one’s own skin and get a heavenly payoff. The author rejects number one by asserting that Pascal’s Christian tradition offers incentives for those not yet fully convinced to seek fuller assurance. Jesus makes those incentives known in various places within the gospels (Matt. 7:7-8, 17:20; Mark 9:14-29). The apologist also discards the second objection because a “person who wagers on God need not be a religious mercenary who commits all intellectual and moral integrity to the flames for the off chance of infinite reward.”

My two issues with the wager are the implicit suggestions about what faith is and what it is not and that it would seem to suggest a false dichotomy between atheism and theism. The faith would seem to be nothing more than intellectual assent and a purely naturalistic process with Pascal’s wager. I get the idea that one is supposed to just will a certain belief (doxastic volunteerism? Go here).  How is this not very works-based and humanistic? You’re doing something to earn something else from God. Where is grace? Also, what about other “in-between” options that could be believed such as pantheism, deism, henotheism, panentheism, or other options?  The wager reduces belief down to either atheism or theism.


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